Lucas Koerner is a journalist at Venezuelanalysis based in Caracas, Venezuela.
Gregory Wilpert a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he taught at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an English-language website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). He moved back to the U.S. in 2008 because his wife was named Consul General of Venezuela in New York and he taught political science at Brooklyn College. Since 2014 he has been living in Quito, Ecuador where he headed up the launch of teleSUR English and his wife took the position of Venezuelan Ambassador to Ecuador. Since early 2016 he has been working as a producer for The Real News.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro registered his candidacy for the April 22nd presidential election on Tuesday. He was accompanied by tens of thousands of supporters as he made his way to the National Electoral Council. The election, though, is taking place under a very heavy cloud. Last week the opposition coalition known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable announced that it will boycott the election. However, one strong opposition candidate, Henri Falcon, registered as a candidate anyway. To complicate matters further, Bloomberg is reporting that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is considering an oil embargo against Venezuela, which would take effect before the election. If so, this could wreak havoc on Venezuela’s already debilitated economy.
So joining me now to analyze the upcoming elections are two guests: Lucas Koerner and Gregory Wilpert. Lucas is staff writer for the website Venezuelanalysis.com and is a masters student at Venezuela’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Lucas joins us from Caracas. Thanks for joining us, Lucas.
LUCAS KOERNER: Great to be here, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: And Greg is a senior producer and host here at the Real News. He is also the author of the book “Changing Venezuela by Taking Power.” He joins us from Quito, Ecuador. Thanks for joining us, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: My pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: And for full disclosure, I must say that Greg’s wife is the Ambassador from Venezuela to Ecuador. Lucas, let’s start with you. You were at the manifestation and the crowd that was gathered that accompanied Maduro to register as a candidate. What were your impressions, and why did people come out to accompany the president to go and register?
LUCAS KOERNER: Yes, there was definitely a large turnout in the streets of downtown Caracas today with a decent amount of enthusiasm. It really is a measure of the fact that Maduro does enjoy significant support among his hardcore Chavista base, something that is completely ignored by the international media. This has to do not with the fact, as usually stated, they receive government food bags or bonuses which actually amount to very small amounts. But it’s something more fundamentally that has to do with the … Maduro is seen as the continuation of the legacy of Chavez in a certain way, and the possibility of continuing and deepening the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution and also, he’s the only option for staving off the really catastrophic threat represented by the opposition … and were they to come to power, the real possibility that they would dismantle all the social gains of these past 19 years.
So definitely there is support, and actually, Maduro’s approval rating has reached a 23-month high according to the conservative data analysis pollster of 26% just recently. So definitely a significant gain. This four-point increase in popularity, while it may seem insignificant, actually is important and notable given the extremely severe nature of Venezuela’s economic downturn, the worst in several decades. And also given the fact that Maduro’s popularity, though very low, is still higher than Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Brazil’s Michel Temer’s popularity combined, in fact. And this obviously is something that is not reported in the mainstream media and there’s no calls for these extremely unpopular leaders … in Michel Temer’s case, who wasn’t even elected … to be ousted, given their low popularities.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now Greg, the opposition is planning to boycott the election. Someone in the opposition really has a good chance of winning, given the economic conditions, the approval ratings that Lucas just mentioned. Why are they boycotting and what will a boycott mean for the vote’s legitimacy, the results of this election?
GREG WILPERT: Yes, that’s actually a kind of tricky question to answer, partly because there’s the stated reasons and then there’s reasons that I think are not so well known for behind the scenes, what their internal calculations are. The stated reasons … They actually just came out with a letter, I think it was today, on Tuesday, stating why or what the conditions would be under which they would agree to participate. And one of the conditions are, for example, that they would want to have two new members of the National Electoral Council where they’d have a voice in naming them; that two of the parties that had been disqualified because they boycotted previous elections would be reinstated; and also that a full kind of international observer team would be recognized and would be able to participate in all of the audits. So those are a number of … and then a couple minor issues, minor points, but those were the main ones.
And they’re saying until … The other main one I forgot to mention is that they also want to postpone the election date. Actually, there is a rumor going around that I just saw that the government is actually in closed-door negotiations about postponing the election date until May 20th. Now this was reported by the Venezuelan newspaper Panorama. I haven’t seen it anywhere else, so it’s not really clear if that’s really true, but it sounds like there’s still negotiations going on.
But then I think there’s also the kind of hidden reasons for not participating, and this is really more speculative, but I think one of the reasons that the opposition doesn’t want to participate is that they really want a radical break from Chavismo and they think that getting a candidate elected, whether it’s any one of their candidates, really, would mean a gradual transition, which would not allow them to purge all of the government as institutions of Chavismo from their positions currently. And so, in other words, they want a radical break, and you can only achieve that if you really have a complete breakdown of the current government, and boycotting the elections would be the best way to do that.
SHARMINI PERIES: Do you think they want erosion to the point that there is what the U.S. has been articulating, which is a sort of … at least a policy that would end in this result, which is a complete breakdown of the political system there, making the way for another coup in Venezuela?
GREG WILPERT: Yes, actually, Tillerson mentioned that possibility before he went on a tour of Latin America and that possibility has been mentioned many times by different factors, both in the opposition and in the U.S. government. So they seem to be definitely angling for that option, which I think would be extremely dangerous for Venezuela, Venezuelans, and for Latin America as a whole.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, getting back to the elections, Lucas, there are two prominent opposition politicians who are barred from running: Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles. What are the reasons for their disqualification, and doesn’t this undermine the vote’s legitimacy if they don’t have a viable opposition candidate running against Maduro?
LUCAS KOERNER: Well in the case of Leopoldo Lopez, he was sentenced to a 13-year prison sentence in September 2015 for his role in leading the previous year’s violent anti-government protest known as The Exit or The Exit of Nicolas Maduro that left 43 people dead, the majority of whom government supporters, security forces, and passerby. This was an incredible … it was very explicit, insurrectionary kind of campaign on a much smaller scale than what we saw this past year in 2017, which left over 100 people dead. And he was convicted and he was sentenced to prison, which has later been commuted to house arrest. So that’s a very clear reason why he cannot stand.
In the case of Henrique Capriles, in April of 2017, the Comptroller General found that he was banned for 15 years on the grounds of receiving international financing for electoral campaigns as well as certain allegations concerning corruption, irregularities in government contracts. Now, none of that has really been made clear and I think that it definitely … it remains to be seen whether that is a legitimate justification. Nonetheless, Henrique Capriles is not, by any means, the opposition front-runner that he was in 2013 when he nearly beat Nicolas Maduro in what was effectively a tie. In fact, his popularity has sunk, given that his support for violent opposition protest … So I don’t think that he can even be considered such a decisive player at this point. I think Henri Falcon in many ways is a much more dangerous threat, given his ability to court moderate, middle-of-the-road opposition supporters as well as, perhaps, some angered Chavistas, though definitely not in significant numbers, that makes him definitely a threat to Nicolas Maduro.
SHARMINI PERIES: Greg, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson here in the U.S. has suggested that there would be an oil embargo if Venezuela proceeds with this election. What would that mean to the economy, particularly given that it is current suffering a great deal economically and people are suffering the consequences of it at a very pivotal time during an election?
GREG WILPERT: Yes, an oil embargo would be very devastating for Venezuela, because Venezuela continues to export something like close to a third of its oil to the United States, and the thing that one needs to know is that most of that oil goes to very specific refineries that are equipped to handle with the extra-heavy crude or heavy crude that Venezuela tends to export to the U.S. And so it won’t be that easy to find new markets for it because you’d have to find new refineries that have additional capacity to refine this particular type of crude. In other words, the refineries that Venezuela has in the U.S. are specifically made for Venezuelan oil. So it would be very big blow, but of course a blow to the U.S. economy to some extent as well, because Citgo, which belongs to Venezuela, is one of the largest oil companies in the United States with something like 14,000 gas stations … but would be a much bigger blow to Venezuela.
And I think the calculus is, again, to cripple the Venezuelan economy precisely to bring a radical break with the Chavista or Maduro government because that would lead to basically a complete inability of Venezuela to import any products, and it depends, still, to a large extent on imports in order to feed the population. Now, Tillerson has said that they want to take that into account and want to try to soften the blow, but I think that’s just rhetoric. If they really go through it, it would be basically trying to repeat the Nicaragua example of what happened in 1990 where people’d say even if we support the government, we’re going to have to vote against it because we’ve got a gun against our head on this.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now what are the chances, Greg, of the Maduro government coming to some reconciliation with the opposition and that these negotiations would succeed and the election is postponed?
GREG WILPERT: Yeah, I think the government is willing to do almost anything that is short of just resigning in order to make sure that the elections are seen as being legitimate and that there are no additional sanctions that would devastate the economy. Of course, it has to make that calculus against the background of possibly losing the vote, which it wants to avoid as well, of course. So it’s a very tricky calculus, but given the unpopularity of the opposition, and you mentioned earlier that 26% support for Maduro’s not much, well, as you compare it to any other opposition candidate, none of them really has any more.
The only one who, according to that latest data analysis poll, who has more right now is Henri Falcon, and that’s something like 36 or 35% of support, and that’s still not very significant and could also change by the time the election comes around. So they’re calculating that they’re going to be able to win the vote, but the main point is that it’s recognized as being legitimate and for that they want to do everything possible to make sure … and would probably concede on major issues, for example, reforming the CNE; I could imagine them doing that or even postponing the elections.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Lucas, let me give you the last word. One of the most frequent concerns that have been talked about a lot is the whole process and the practically omnipotent power of the National Constituent Assembly. It was elected last July, also under the opposition’s boycott. The idea was to rewrite the constitution, but now it is passing a decree that no one, not even the supreme court or the president, can change or challenge this. How is such power justified, and doesn’t the very existence of this assembly make a presidential election questionable?
LUCAS KOERNER: Well, in terms of the National Constituent Assembly, we have to understand that under Venezuela’s constitution it has an article which allows the convening of what is supposedly is the original power, the direct power of the people to dissolve the existing constitution and write a new one. Basically, something that no other country, at least in the West, allows, given that most constitutions are written by elites and imposed. So in principle, this is a extremely democratic mechanism that allows the renegotiation of the magna carta in a democratic fashion, and opening spaces for participation among citizens, et cetera, and you do see in the composition of the National Constituent Assembly a large number of representatives of different social movements, et cetera.
However, what is very vague within the constitution is to what extent the National Constituent Assembly has powers with relation to other sectors, other existing branches, that basically the constitution says that all existing constituted powers are subject to the National Constituent Assembly. It doesn’t go into greater detail regarding the intricacies of those relationships. So in principle, yes, all other powers have to submit themselves to the National Constituent Assembly, though we should note that with regard to the president’s proposal that was also proposed from the National Constituent Assembly to convene a mega-election, that is to have on the same day, April 22nd, elections for president, for the National Assembly, for local, state, and municipal legislatures. That was actually vetoed by the National Electoral Council on the grounds that technically, there was no technical capacity to do that, and that might have to be held later this year or next year. So those details have to be ironed out.
Though I don’t think that there’s anything inherently illegal or unconstitutional about the activity of the National Constituent Assembly. There definitely are critiques from within the left wing of Chavismo that, for example, the National Constituent Assembly has served more as a rubber stamp for the existing decisions of the Maduro administration, instead of serving as kind of a lightning rod to project popular demands into the upper echelons of the state and really take the decisive economic measures that could protect the working people from the brunt of this economic crisis that, as Greg explains, has been deeply intensified by U.S. sanctions and will further be exacerbated by the impact of a U.S. oil embargo. So there’s a lot of critiques here that have to be discussed, though I think that it’s simplistic to simply say that this is an unconstitutional super-parliament, as the mainstream media projects.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right, then let me also you, Greg, in terms of this Constituent Assembly, how is it rationalized in the constitution, the existence of it, the power it has, and when is it brought about? Under what conditions?
GREG WILPERT: Well the conditions are basically that the president can convoke a Constituent Assembly election at any time. Also, the general population can do so by collecting signatures or the National Assembly by a two-thirds vote, I think it was. So there’s a number of different conditions that were met in this case.
The bigger question is though, how is it justified in terms of the power, and as Lucas says, there’s supposed to be the direct kind of … that’s why it’s called Constituent Assembly … it’s the Venezuelan people, so to speak, that are directly governing themselves through as little representation as possible, essentially. And the very fact that they’re able to rewrite the constitution is supposed to mean that they can also govern all other aspects of the Venezuelan political system. And it’s supposed to be of limited duration, in this case it was convoked for two years, so it will have to disband a year and a half from now, roughly. But as Lucas says, there’s a lot of questions about it having really not fulfilling quite the role that it was originally intended for, which was to be the direct voice of the people, and is actually doing the bidding over and over again, with this one exception about the mega-elections. But most of the time, it’s doing the bidding of what President Maduro would like to see.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, that was Gregory Wilpert, senior producer here at the Real News Network, and Lucas Koerner joining us from Caracas, Venezuela, staff writer for Venezuelanalysis.com. Gentlemen, I thank you both for joining us.
GREG WILPERT: Thank you.
LUCAS KOERNER: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.